Top 5 Travel Rewards Cards for United Airlines Frequent Flyers

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For most flyers, the best travel-rewards credit card is a card that awards miles in the program hosted by the airline they're already loyal to. There's no sense in signing up for a Southwest-linked credit card if you're an American partisan, right?

What may come as a surprise, however, is that the card that awards the most miles in a particular program might not be that program's own co-branded card.

For United partisans, there are several credit card choices available, each with its own set of virtues and limitations.

First, the airline's own co-branded card:

United MileagePlus Explorer Card

  • Earn 2 miles per $1 on tickets purchased with United.
  • Earn 1 point per $1 for other purchases.
  • Limited time offer: 50,000 points after spending $3,000 within the first three months of account opening (offer ends March 15, 2018).
  • Annual fee: $95, waived the first 12 months.
  • APR: 17.24% - 24.24% variable, depending on credit.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Comment: Travel perks include fee waiver for first checked bag, priority boarding, 2 daily lounge passes.

The Explorer is United's mid-priced card, featuring a modest annual fee, waived the first year, and a handful of meaningful travel upgrades. There are also the United TravelBank card, with no annual fee and no travel perks; and at the other extreme, the MileagePlus Club Card, with a $450 annual fee, and a long list of travel benefits.

Next up for consideration are several non-United-branded cards, which allow you to earn United miles indirectly—through an intermediary loyalty currency (Ultimate Rewards points or hotel points), which can be converted to United miles.

Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

  • Earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points per $1 for travel and dining.
  • Earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point per $1 for other purchases.
  • Welcome offer: 50,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening, plus an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user who uses the card within three months.
  • Annual fee: $95, waived the first 12 months.
  • APR: 17.24% - 24.24% variable, depending on credit.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Comment: Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred into a number of airline and hotel programs, including United's, at a 1:1 ratio, as well as redeemed for travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal. In the latter case, 50,000 points are worth $625.

Chase Sapphire Reserve Card

  • Earn 3 Ultimate Rewards points per $1 for travel and dining.
  • Earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point per $1 for other purchases.
  • Welcome offer: 50,000 points after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening, plus an additional 5,000 points for adding an authorized user who uses the card within three months.
  • Annual fee: $450.
  • APR: 17.24% - 24.24% variable, depending on credit.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Comment: Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred into a number of airline and hotel programs, including United's, at a 1:1 ratio, as well as redeemed for travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal. Other travel perks include Priority Pass lounge access, free credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, $300 annual travel credit.

Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase

  • Earn 5 points per $1 at Marriott hotels.
  • Earn 2 points per $1 for airline tickets purchased directly with airlines, dining.
  • Earn 1 point per $1 for other purchases.
  • Welcome offer: 75,000 points after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • Annual fee: $85, waived the first 12 months.
  • APR: 17.24% - 24.24% variable, depending on credit.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Comment: Marriott Rewards points convert to United miles at variable rates, from 8,000 Marriott Rewards points for 2,000 United miles to 112,000 points for 50,000 miles. Good program, solid card, big bonus.

Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express

  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent at Starwood and Marriott hotels.
  • Earn 1 point per $1 for other purchases.
  • Welcome offer: 25,000 points after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.
  • Annual fee: $95, waived the first 12 months.
  • APR: 16.49% - 20.49% variable, depending on credit.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • Comment: Starwood points are convertible to miles or points in 34 airline programs, including United's, typically at a 1:1 transfer ratio. And when 20,000 points are transferred, there's a 5,000-mile bonus, yielding a total of 25,000 miles. In United's case, however, the transfer rate is just 2:1.
  • Terms Apply

Which Card Is Best for You?

There is no categorically best credit card for United flyers; it depends on your financial situation, your travel behavior, and your travel needs.

If you're a regular United customer, the United MileagePlus Explorer Card will serve you well. The combination of low annual fee, waived the first year, useful travel perks, and hefty sign-up bonus makes for a high-value package, specifically focused and earning United miles and upgrading the United flight experience a bit.

If you're less intensely United focused, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and Chase Sapphire Reserve offer a more flexible loyalty currency, with Ultimate Rewards points that can be converted into miles or points in multiple airline and hotel programs, including United MileagePlus.

And if hotel points are a priority, the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase and the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express offer convertible points, although in both cases the conversion rate to United miles is less than stellar.

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